Lisu - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Religion revolves around spirit (ne) propitiation and ancestor worship of the two most recently deceased generations. To assure good health and good crops, a Lisu must stay on good terms with his dead ancestors and the hierarchy of other spirits. The strength of belief varies from one Lisu to the next, Chinese writers claiming that religion has greatly diminished in importance in post-1949 China. Any knowledgeable Lisu may practice divination, commonly with pig livers, chicken femurs, or bamboo dice.

Religious Practitioners. Religion is generally a male concern. Any male may become a shaman (ne pha ) if he has the aptitude for contacting ancestors and other spirits useful in curing the sick, and if he passes initiation tests by other shamans. He has no inherent power and receives little remuneration. A village priest ( mu meu pha ), who is chosen through divination, keeps track of the religious (lunar) calendar (which frequently differs from village to village) and coordinates ceremonies for the village spirit. The Lisu observe a twelve-year cycle, similar to that of the Chinese.

Ceremonies. Most important are New Year (extending over several days in spring, and a chance to display fine clothes and jewelry, visit other villages, and seek a spouse), and the tree-renewal ceremony (held at harvest time to purify the village of bad spirits and help the guardian spirit defend the village).

Arts. The major forms of artistic expression are: clothing (especially shoulder bags worn by both men and women, embroidered with abstract designs), jewelry (worn by both men and women on wrists, neck, ears, breast, and back—the principal form of wealth), music (three-string guitars, flutes, and gourd pipes), singing (including challenge-and-response love songs between groups of young men and women), and community dancing.

Medicine. Herbal medicines are used. Sickness is a symptom of disharmony between the patient and the spirit world, so a ne pha must be consulted. In trance, he finds the spirit responsible for the sickness and the patient's family strikes a deal for the performance of a propitiating ceremony and the offering of a chicken or pig (which is afterward eaten by the patient and kin).

Death and Afterlife. When a person dies, his or her spirit is potentially dangerous for three years, after which it is invited to the altar shelf in the house of its son. Spirits of those who died without children, or who died an unusual death (homicide, suicide, strange accident) may attack people. Ancestral spirits who are honored regularly with offerings of rice, liquor or water, joss sticks, and ragweed bring good health and large crops.

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